Shirley Baker Exhibition Review

Shirley Baker

‘Women, Children and Loitering Men’ is an exhibition I visited within the Photographers Gallery, curated by Anna Douglas, promoting the work of well known street photographer Shirley Baker. She started the project with the first photo in 1960 where her fathers business is, Manchester, and carries on into the 80’s. The collection of photographs varies in locations between the inner city of Manchester and just further out into Salford, showcasing the slum clearances making way for modern tower blocks.

As I walked into the exhibition, it was unclear as to which way one should view the exhibition room, but thinking logically I went clockwise. The first wall I saw ahead of me in the middle of the exhibition room featured a big photograph, covering the whole wall. This was a great photograph in almost summing up the whole body of work, though I only know this now after seeing it all. This wall was also personally a great introduction for myself as I am a particular lover of large scale photography. Opposite this wall was a great quote, taken from Baker herself “My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exit miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them” which gives an indication as to why she produced the work.

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As I moved around the room, clockwise, it was difficult to understand the structure of the work, they may have been placed in sections of the children playing, the elderly, and the women, although this could not have been definite. The photographs were mainly black and white, with a white border and black frame which added… Towards the end of the collection were also coloured photographs, I have mixed reactions towards them being placed together with the black and white images. Usually I don’t like to see black and white next to a coloured image, and the black and white images were powerful enough to stand on their own, although I think the colour reflects what Baker is illustrating in her work. The colour could be making way for the modern tower blocks, yet the volume of black and white photography over powers being the slums Baker felt she had the duty to record.

At the end of the exhibition space was a small black room, inside which had a TV screen playing the images on a slideshow, and an iPad with headphones screening an interview with the curator of the exhibition; Anna Douglas. It was slightly irritating that I watched this video after having viewed the exhibition, it would have been more beneficial to me to watch it before viewing the exhibition room. Having said that I’m pleased that this happened because it made me view the exhibition for a second time after having watched the video and understanding Baker and her work a bit more.

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The children in Shirley Baker’s photographs seem undeterred by the demolition of their neighbourhood and livelihood. Something which sticks in my mind is the constant smiling from the subjects in Bakers images. One image I can pin point was of a few cheeky boys wearing gas masks playing on the wall. The children in Bakers images appeared to have created their own swings, the cobbled streets were their playground and cricket pitch amongst the messy streets filled with rubble surrounded by boarded up houses. Bebb managed to show us a different perspective to the hardship post war, without making it seem neither depressing nor happy.

Baker’s readiness to use humour, coupled with the freedom of time allowed her to form a close relationship with the people she photographed. This is what made her work so unlike other photographers of her time period and key to their success.  Standing around, watching and waiting gave her a unique familiarity bond not just with the people, but also the places themselves. Shirley Baker had an obsessive interest in the street. Part of Baker’s success in this body of work came from her choice of camera, a Rolleiflex which was perfect for this street documentary. The viewfinder was on top of the camera and  it had to be held at waist level, allowing a lower viewpoint ideally suited to photographing children, and leaving Baker’s face unobscured so that she was free to talk to subjects and even make eye contact.

One detail of the exhibition which I liked was the specially commissioned sound work which featured audio of street sounds, the building works and the children playing, mixed with recordings of Baker talking about the period. This added to the atmosphere in the exhibition room and served to recreate the images, allowing me to visualize the scene.

‘Women, Children and Loitering Men’ was a surprisingly enjoyable exhibition and I appreciate her work. I don’t encounter having seen this portrayal of slums or hardship, post war done this way before. I have to say that I don’t usually like viewing war photography, but this particular exhibition kept me interested. It didn’t make me feel sad or depressed about the slums thanks to Bakers readiness to use humor. In a way, being in her exhibition room whilst seeing her photography made me feel included in her work, the sound work played a big help in that. I would recommend a viewing- its free before midday!

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